The beauty of difference
Joel-Peter Witkin has spent his career making photographs with controversial imagery. He invests his images with a sense of the innate beauty and humanity of his subjects, which include transsexual, intersex, and amputee models, as well as corpses and body parts in evocative arrangements that reference religious themes and masterpieces from art history. Center, the Santa Fe-based organization that supports international photographers, honors Witkin at the Review Santa Fe Photo Festival, which runs through Sunday, Oct. 21. The ticketed event, which takes place at the Drury Plaza Hotel at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, includes a talk by writer Eugenia Parry and a presentation by Witkin. His exhibition Splendor & Misery is also on view at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe through Nov. 4. On the cover is a detail of Witkin’s 2007 Woman with Small Breasts, a hand-tinted silver gelatin print with collage elements.
Iremember, many years ago, seeing a photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin of a woman’s portrait in profile. She was elegantly posed nude, save for black evening gloves and a white scarf wrapped around her head and neck in such a way that only her face was exposed. I saw the image in a Witkin show at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Staring intently at the image, which is called Prudence, two things struck me. One was that her head — with a face as glamorous as a movie star’s from the golden age of cinema — seemed oddly distended from her body. The other thing was that another head was affixed to the back of her own. The second head was dark, as though in shadow, which is why I didn’t notice it at first. Its face, unlike the first, was blindfolded, its mouth agape. The image as a whole was one of contrasts, a Janus-like vision of beauty and horror. I wondered if the scarf barely disguised an uncomfortable truth: that the graceful nude with her long black gloves was only a decapitated corpse. But my impressions of archetypal beauty and mystery remained.
“I consider myself a kind of photographic dramatist,” said Witkin, who is based in Albuquerque. “I don’t photograph nice things, timid things. I photograph things that are challenging and promote thought and individual reckoning. I think that’s what art should do.” Witkin, whose exhibition Splendor &
Misery is currently on view at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, is being honored on Saturday, Oct. 20, by Center as part of the annual Review Santa Fe Photo Festival. The event, which takes place at the Drury Plaza Hotel, includes a reception, dinner, and talk by writer Eugenia Parry followed by a presentation by Witkin. Prudence was neither the first nor the last time Witkin has photographed a human corpse, disembodied head, or severed extremity. The Kiss (1982), Harvest (1984), and Anna Akhmatova (1998), all of which are in the exhibit at El Museo, incorporate these elements. But Witkin’s interest isn’t in morbidity. These images have a pedigree — a connection to established artistic traditions. Take, for instance, the Italian
natura morta (dead nature), known in English by the more palatable but perhaps less honest term “still life.” Paintings of natura morta typically depict objects such as cut flowers and picked fruits in formal aesthetic arrangements.
Witkin’s works also call to mind the Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries — compositions depicting objects that are symbolic of death and human transience. Harvest and Anna Akhmatova, named for the Russian poet, pay explicit homage to such traditions; they are, essentially, still lifes. But the artist’s subject matter is very much of the present moment. “I don’t think art has ever been made by anyone at any time that’s praising ugliness or something that goes against the human spirit,” he said. “I think all of it has a positive element. The expression ‘By their works you will know them,’ I think, is a way of defining art. A person makes something at any given time in history and it’s basically totally reflective of that person’s life, their spirit, and what kind of visceral and physical reaction they’re making to any kind of human endeavor or event in history or time.”
Witkin’s statement about the human spirit is telling and revealing in that his live models — which include people with physical deformities, hermaphrodites, people of short stature, and fetishists who are partial to all manner of kinks — are always treated with inherent respect. He’s mindful, even reverent, of their humanness, a fact reflected in compositions inspired by famous works of art. For example, his
Las Meninas from 1987 is based on Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velázquez’s 1656 original, which shows Infanta Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, attended by her entourage. In the place of the
future Holy Roman Empress, Witkin photographed a double amputee. By recasting figures from celebrated historic works with contemporary individuals who represent a broad spectrum of humanity, Witkin exalts those individuals.
Witkin sees beyond the surface, where most get trapped in their prejudices. “In Western art, you have Hieronymus Bosch showing people who are very different physically: cripples, et cetera. I think what that shows is the fact that, regardless of what physicality a person has, art related to any person is about the soul of that person, not the way they look per se. What’s different about a person in a way that’s considered art or beautiful is the outside or exterior identity, and also the inner spiritual factor. Any attempt to make something that doesn’t have the latter purpose is empty. It’s a waste of material and time. What I want to do, and always have worked for, is to show the beauty of difference.”
It isn’t any wonder that despite winning support from the National Endowment for the Arts four times, Witkin’s work is more warmly received in Europe than in the U.S., where it is considered controversial. The artist regularly shows at the Baudoin Lebon
“I CONSIDER MYSELF A KIND OF PHOTOGRAPHIC DRAMATIST. I DON’T PHOTOGRAPH NICE THINGS, TIMID THINGS. I PHOTOGRAPH THINGS THAT ARE CHALLENGING AND PROMOTE THOUGHT AND INDIVIDUAL RECKONING. I THINK THAT’S WHAT ART SHOULD DO.”
gallery in Paris. “I’ve had more shows in Europe than I have in the United States,” he said. “The Europeans are far more accepting and mature about subject matter. We’re puritanical here, to a great extent.” In 1990, Witkin was knighted by the French government; a decade later, he was awarded Commander of Arts and Letters of France.
It takes only a brief perusal of Witkin’s oeuvre to see that religious iconography, particularly of the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western culture, is a reappearing motif. Portrait of Joel, a self-portrait from 1985, shows the photographer donning a mask to which a small figure of the crucified Christ is affixed. Witkin’s preoccupation with spirituality is a primary theme. Images of Christ and the crucifixion have occurred throughout his career.
His Savior of the Primates (1982) is a powerful image in which Christ is depicted as a simian — masked, just as Witkin is in the self-portrait — and depicted hanging from the cross. Christ, in scripture, refers to himself as the son of man — but “man,” after all, is himself a primate. “The underlying reality is that I make photographs that are, to me, not only important to make, but have a historical and religious presence,” he said. “I consider myself a Christian artist, and I’m reacting to this time and life. For me, I make the work not for people’s reactions but to create truth as I see it.”